"You cannot be."
Cullen's eyebrows rose at that dismayed whisper from Evelinde d'Aumesbery, his bride-to-be. Moments ago, she'd been warm and willing in his arms, and now she appeared utterly horrified. Mouth turning down grimly, he assured her, "I am."
"Nay, you cannot be the Devil of Donnachaidh," she assured him. "He is… well a Devil. Everyone knows that. And you…" She peered at him helplessly. "You are handsome and sweet and have kind eyes. And you made me feel…" She paused and shook her head firmly. "You cannot be the Devil."
Cullen's expression softened at her words. She found him handsome? He could do without the sweet and kind eyes nonsense, but he liked that she thought him handsome.
"What did I make ye feel?" he growled, moving closer to slide one hand up her arm, suppressing a satisfied smile when she shivered and gasped at the light touch.
Cullen froze and nearly cursed aloud at the interruption as he became aware of the sound of hoof-beats closing on them. Scowling, he turned a glare on the hapless man who charged into the clearing on a light reddish brown roan.
"Mac." There was no missing the relief in her voice as Evelinde pulled away and turned to greet the man.
"There ye are. I was starting to worry. I—"
Cullen's eyebrows rose as the man's words died and his expression darkened with rage. He followed the fellow's gaze to Evelinde and immediately understood. The woman was a complete and utter mess. Her dress was still damp and torn in at least three places; the worst of which was a long rent from shoulder to waistline. It left one side of her gown gaping open like a flap, giving them both a perfect view of the bruise on her side, visible through the still-damp cloth of her chemise. If that wasn't enough to convince the man his mistress had been attacked, there was also the darkening bruise on her chin, her lips, swollen from his kisses, the knotted mass her hair was, and the still-stunned look on her face.
The fury on the man's expression made Cullen positive he was going to get some welcome exercise to work off the unsatisfied desire still rolling through him, but then he noted the man didn't have a sword. A servant then, he realized with disappointment.
"Ye'd be the Donnachaidh, then?" the man asked, his voice shaking with fury.
"Aye." Cullen answered, supposing his men must have reached the castle before this man had ridden out. If they had mentioned coming across a woman in the woods and their laird staying behind with her, it might even be the reason he'd headed out in search of his mistress. It suggested he was protective of her, and not a coward if he was willing to face the infamous Devil of Donnachaidh for his lady.
As he caught Evelinde by the arm and urged her to her mare, Cullen considered easing the man's mind by explaining he was not the cause of any of her injuries, but then decided against it. He rarely bothered to explain anything. Cullen preferred to let people make up their own minds about things, which was part of the reason he had such a fearsome reputation. Left to their own devices, people almost always chose the most damning explanation for events. That usually worked to his advantage, however. It was quite handy being considered the cruel, heartless Devil of Donnachaidh. His reputation assured most battles were won before they even began. He'd found there was no better weapon in the world than the fear inspired by the ridiculous tales of the Devil of Donnachaidh.
"Thank you," Evelinde murmured, when he lifted her onto her mare.
He glanced at her then to find she was eyeing him with an expression that was both worried and perplexed. For some reason that made him want to kiss her again… so he did. Ignoring the watching servant, Cullen caught her by the back of the neck and drew her head down for a brief hard kiss that made her gasp in surprise. Then he released her, and she sat back up in the saddle. Apparently, the action hadn't been reassuring to her. If anything, she looked more worried as well as more perplexed.
Women are like that though, Cullen thought as he caught the reins of her horse in hand and led it to his own mount. Always thinking, always fretting, and never logical, but that was why God had made men, to protect the silly creatures from themselves.
He hauled himself up into the saddle and turned to eye the servant expectantly. The man glanced from him to his mistress, then ground his teeth together and urged his horse out of the clearing. Cullen followed, drawing Evelinde's horse behind.
With any other woman he would have paid her no more heed than that, but Cullen found himself glancing repeatedly over his shoulder as they rode. He couldn't seem to help himself. Every time he looked back, it was to find her returning the stare, and her expression was different each time. Perplexed, worried, thoughtful… When Cullen glanced back to find a soft smile on her face, it was too much for him. He stopped his horse, drew her mare to a halt as it cantered alongside his mount, and reached out to draw her onto his horse before him.
"Who is he?" Cullen asked as he urged his mount to start moving again.
"Mac," she answered. "He is our stable master… and a friend."
Cullen considered the back of the grizzled man's head, but quickly decided he was no threat. The stable master was not an amorous interest to the girl he was sure. The man's influence was probably more fatherly in nature. From her complete lack of finesse when he'd first kissed her, it seemed obvious his betrothed had never been kissed before. She'd learned quickly though, he thought with satisfaction and allowed the hand he had around her waist to slide up to rest just below one breast. She would please him in bed.
"He thinks I raped ye," he announced, and she jerked in his arms.
"What? No! Why would he think that?" she asked, twisting around to look at him.
Cullen merely raised one eyebrow, his gaze sweeping over her. Evelinde followed his gaze and groaned as she took note of the state she was in, then caught the gaping flap of her gown and tried to draw it up to cover herself, but his arm and hand were in the way.
Sighing, she gave up the effort, and asked, "Why did you not explain?"
Cullen shrugged, the action bringing his hand up higher so it brushed against the bottom of her breast. "I am the Devil of Donnachaidh."
Evelinde peered up at him silently, and Cullen felt himself suddenly uncomfortable under that gaze. He suspected he'd revealed more than he'd intended with those words.
Scowling, he snapped his mouth shut and turned his gaze forward. This was exactly why he didn't like talking.
Cullen remained silent for the rest of the ride, but Evelinde didn't mind. She was caught up in her own thoughts, but found it somewhat difficult to concentrate with his hand brushing repeatedly against her breast. Each time it did, an arrow of anticipation shot through her as her body recalled the pleasure he'd given her in the clearing.
And that was a problem. Evelinde was terribly confused. The Devil of Donnachaidh, or the Duncan as he kept calling himself, wasn't at all what she'd expected. She hadn't felt any fear at all of the man. Even when he'd first appeared in the meadow, she hadn't been frightened so much as startled to find someone next to her.
Evelinde hadn't had much time to think about her upcoming marriage to the Devil of Donnachaidh, but she was sure she wouldn't have imagined he could inspire the passion in her he had. The Devil was supposed to be a cold, heartless, and cruel bastard. He was supposed to have murdered his father and uncle to gain his title as laird of his clan. He was also supposed to have killed his first wife because she produced no bairns for him. Perhaps Evelinde was naive, but it seemed to her a man like that should look cruel and heartless. He should inspire fear in a body the moment one laid eyes on him, and he shouldn't be able to stir the concern and passion in her that Evelinde had experienced back in the clearing.
That was only one of her worries, however. The other was that she feared—after her wanton behavior in the clearing—the man might think her free with her affections. And she hadn't even known he was her betrothed. Did he think she was not just wanton but also the sort of woman who would be unfaithful? Because she had been unfaithful. Perhaps not technically since it turned out he was the man she was to marry, but Evelinde hadn't known that when she was letting him kiss her so passionately and do those other things, and now she was ashamed of herself and afraid of what he thought of her.
Cullen's thumb suddenly brushed across the bottom of her breast, distracting Evelinde again. Glancing up, she noted they had arrived back at d'Aumesbery and were crossing the drawbridge. Her gaze lifted to the men on the wall, and she frowned as she noted how silent they were and how grim their expressions. Obviously, they had noted her condition and were thinking the worst.
Feeling herself blush with embarrassment, Evelinde bit her lip on the instinct to shout out that she hadn't been raped and merely turned her face forward as they passed into the bailey.
Edda was waiting for them at the doors of the keep as they crossed the bailey. Five rugged-looking men in plaids stood around her.
"Your men?" Evelinde asked, her gaze sliding over them. Each and every one towered over Edda, and Edda was not short. Her stepmother stood at least four inches taller than she, so it seemed obvious they were all good-sized men. They stood with arms crossed over their chests and grim expressions on their faces. They didn't look particularly pleased to be there.
Edda, on the other hand, looked like the cat who found the cream. Her smile widened with every step Cullen's mount took as she was better able to see the state her stepdaughter was in.
Evelinde had no doubt the woman was coming to the same conclusions that Mac had, only her stepmother was apparently enjoying these conclusions. She wasn't really surprised. Edda had never liked her and had made no bones about letting her know it. No doubt she'd convinced the king to choose the Devil of Donnachaidh as Evelinde's betrothed in the hopes of ensuring her a miserable future. In fact, she suspected Edda would probably be most upset to know what had really happened. If the odious woman thought for one moment that Evelinde had gained her bruises—not from this man—but in a fall in the river, or that the Duncan had but kissed her and—worse yet—that she'd enjoyed his kisses and caresses, Edda might very well find some way to end this betrothal.
That thought gave Evelinde pause. When she'd ridden out of the bailey the idea of finding a way to end her betrothal to the Devil of Donnachaidh would have been a welcome one. Was it still?
She twisted to look at the man behind her. Cullen's chin was high, his eyes on the people on the stairs, his expression as grim as those of the men they were approaching… but she recalled the soft words of praise he'd given his horse and the affectionate pat he'd offered the animal. His kisses had been passionate and yet not roughly so, while his caresses and touch had been gentle. And when she'd begun to struggle, he'd released her at once, even though, as her betrothed, he really needn't have. He had also handled her gently when he'd lifted her onto her mount, and again when he'd lifted her from her mount to join him on his own horse on the return journey.
All of this made Evelinde wonder now how many of the terrible tales about him were simply that: tales. People assuming they knew what happened and he allowing them to do so.
It was little enough to go on, but more than she'd known before their meeting in the meadow.
Evelinde wasn't yet sure of much about this man, but she was sure about one thing. She was not afraid of him. Her instincts were telling her she was safe in his hands.
It made her positive she did not wish Edda finding out the truth of things. She would not risk the woman bringing an end to this betrothal, only to marry her off to someone she was afraid of, or whom she would find sharing a bed with to be thoroughly repulsive, because Evelinde was quite sure she would not have that problem with this man. He had already stirred passions in her she hadn't known existed.
No, Evelinde decided, she would allow Edda and everyone else to think the worst… and marry this man.
When Cullen reined in his mount and slid off the back of the horse, Evelinde immediately started to slide off unaided, but he was there to catch her by the waist before her feet hit the dirt. Their eyes met briefly as he set her gently on the ground, and she almost smiled her thanks, but then she remembered Edda and glowered instead. She saw surprise flash through his eyes and nearly blurted an apology, but caught it back and instead murmured, "Forgive me, my lord, for what is about to take place. I shall explain later. Just, pray, be the Devil of Donnachaidh as you were with Mac."
Much to her relief, he didn't demand an explanation. One eyebrow merely arched slightly on his forehead, but that was the only reaction he showed.
She turned to walk forward, her steps slow and a bit rigid as her bruising began to pain her. Stiffness was setting in, she realized with a grimace. No doubt it would only worsen in the coming hours.
Her gaze slid to Edda to see the woman was almost in the throes of ecstasy as she watched her approach. Hiding the disgust she felt, Evelinde forced her face to remain solemn and emotionless and paused before her. She wasn't surprised when Edda ignored her altogether and instead turned a wide, approving smile on Cullen.
"Laird Donnachaidh," Edda greeted. "I see you have met our Evelinde. I do hope you are pleased with the betrothal."
"Aye," Cullen grunted, and Evelinde noted the way his eyes shifted to his men in question. Each met his gaze in turn and some silent message seemed to pass between them. Evelinde couldn't read what the message was but suspected it had something to do with Edda.
"Good, good." Her stepmother smiled widely, then quickly tempered the smile to hide her teeth and slid her arm through his to turn him toward the door to the keep. "I should tell you I am the one who chose you to marry our Evelinde, and I admire a man who begins as he means to go on. You need not spare the girl. Beat her as often as you wish. She is healthy and strong and can withstand much. In fact, she is so strong I often wonder if there is not peasant stock somewhere in her ancestry." She ended the little insult with a laugh that faded uncertainly as she tried to lead Cullen to the door of the keep only to find he didn't move.
"Yer priest," Cullen growled when she turned a confused expression up to his face.
Her eyebrows rose. "Father Saunders?"
"Fetch him. We wed and we leave."
"So soon? I—You—" Edda paused, then, apparently deciding she liked the idea of ridding herself of Evelinde so quickly, her wide smile returned. "I shall send for him at once."
Cullen gave a curt nod, caught Evelinde by the arm, and urged her past Edda to enter the keep.
Evelinde bit her lip on the protest that she couldn't possibly be ready to go so quickly. Instead, she tried to think how she could manage to get all her things packed and ready to go in such a short time. The idea of leaving d'Aumesbery was both a painful prospect and a pleasure to contemplate. There were many here she would miss. She had grown up with these people and was now leaving them behind. The idea of being free of Edda, however, was a pleasant one, Evelinde thought, as Cullen left her at the bottom of the stairs and she started up them.
It wasn't until she started up those steps that she realized how much of a problem her injuries were going to be. While walking raised aches and complaints, lifting her legs to mount the stairs made her suck in her breath as pain shot from hip to knee. Oh yes, traveling was going to be most unpleasant, she thought with a sigh.
Gritting her teeth, Evelinde forced herself to ignore the pain and continue upward, telling herself it would pass. A day or two and she would be fine. It was just bruising and stiffness setting in now. She could handle the pain until her body mended. But she knew it would only grow worse over the next hour or so. The thought of having to rush about packing was not a pleasant one, but the thought of riding after the ceremony was enough to bring tears to her eyes.
Her room was empty when she entered. Evelinde put off changing for now and began to pack, working as quickly as she could. She hadn't grown much since she was sixteen years old and had always taken care with her gowns, so while Edda had refused to allow her even one new dress since her father's death, Evelinde still had many clothes from while he'd still lived. They were all somewhat old and faded, perhaps, and a little frayed here and there, but still wearable. She was slowly folding away one such gown in her chest when her chamber door burst open and Mildrede rushed in.
"Oh, my lady! Mac told me—Dear God in heaven," the maid breathed, coming to an abrupt halt when Evelinde straightened and turned to face her.
It was only then Evelinde recalled her bedraggled and bruised state. Wishing she'd taken a moment to change as Cullen had ordered, she quickly assured her, "Cullen did not do this."
"Nay, that Devil you're supposed to marry did," Mildrede said grimly.
"Mac told me everything. Never fear, we have a plan," she assured her, hurrying forward. "We shall run away. 'Tis not far to the Abbey. We can—"
"Cullen is the Devil," Evelinde interrupted, stepping back as the woman reached for her, then realized that hadn't come out right. "I mean, he is not really the Devil. But—Cullen is Lord Donnachaidh," she said finally, exasperated with herself. "And he did not do this. I fell in the river."
"Oh, aye." Mildrede paused before her, open disbelief on her face. "And falling in the river ripped your bodice wide open, did it?"
"Nay," she admitted. "Cullen did that."
Mildrede nodded and grabbed her by the arm. "We are fleeing. Mac is preparing three horses as we speak."
"Nay," Evelinde cried, tugging at her arm, but her maid was determined to save her and held fast. "He did not mean to rip the gown, he was just trying to get it off… of him," she added quickly, when Mildrede clucked with disgust.
That brought her to a halt. Turning back with wide horrified eyes, she asked, "He is one of those? He was wanting to wear your dress?"
"Nay," Evelinde gasped, shocked at the very idea. Really, she couldn't imagine Cullen or any other man wanting to don a dress. "It was on his head."
That explanation did not soothe Mildrede. If anything, it seemed to be exactly what she'd expected.
"The randy Devil!" she said with disgust, beginning to tug her forward once more. "Forcing his way under yer skirt on first meeting you! And the two of you not even wed yet!"
"Mildrede!" Evelinde cried with exasperation. " 'Tis not what you think! Pray, stop and let me explain. This is all just a muddle. He really did not hurt me."
"You can explain on the way to the stables. 'Tis—" Her voice died as she opened the door only to find herself confronted with several servants bearing a tub and pails of water.
"The Dev—Lord Donnachaidh ordered a hot bath for you, my lady," one of the men at the front of the tub announced. "He said we were to make it as hot as you could stand. 'Twould soothe your aches and pains from your fall."
"See." Evelinde tugged her arm from Mildrede's grasp and moved a couple of steps away just to be sure she didn't grab it again. "I told you I fell."
Mildrede hesitated, then instructed the men to set the tub by the fire, before moving closer to Evelinde. "So he did not strike you? Not one of those bruises you are sporting are from his fists?"
"Nay. 'Twas the fall in the river that bruised me, though I think he thinks I fell from my horse as he did," Evelinde assured her in a whisper, her gaze moving nervously to the men now emptying pail after pail of steaming water into the tub. She didn't wish them to hear and possibly report to Edda. Drawing Mildrede to the far corner of the room, she quickly whispered the string of events that had led to her returning in the state she was in.
"So his head was not under your skirt?" Mildrede said slowly, once Evelinde had finished. "He did not touch you in that way at all?"
"Well…" Evelinde blushed and avoided her gaze. Then seeing the suspicion on the woman's face, she sighed and admitted, "He kissed me."
Mildrede stared at her silently and quirked an eyebrow. "And?"
Evelinde hesitated, but knew if she didn't convince her maid all would be well, Mildrede and Mac would risk themselves to try to make her escape, and she really had no desire to escape the marriage at this point. In fact, she was beginning to feel the first bit of hope for her future she'd had in a long time. She would be the mistress of her own home, without Edda there to make life miserable, and truly, she was beginning to have hope she might deal acceptably well with Cullen.
"He has really been quite kind," Evelinde assured her in a low and solemn voice. "And I feel no fear with him. He has kind eyes and"—she took a deep breath, and admitted—"I enjoyed his kisses… Very much," she added when Mildrede hesitated, still looking uncertain. "Besides, look how thoughtful he was in ordering a bath for me to ease my aches," she pointed out, and shook her head. "He is not what his reputation claims him to be, Mildrede, any more than Edda is the sweet, biddable, and adoring stepmother everyone at court thinks she is."
A slow sigh slid from the maid's lips, then she glanced to the men as they finished their work. She watched them leave the room before turning back to Evelinde to suggest, "Get you into the tub. I shall nip down to the stables to reassure Mac all is well… for now. Howbeit, do you change your mind, we can still—"
"I will not change my mind," Evelinde assured her, and was quite positive she wouldn't. She then cautioned, "Make sure no one is near when you tell Mac the truth of what happened. I would not have Edda learn any of this before the wedding takes place."
"Nay. The old cow would probably find some way to break the betrothal and force you to marry another," the maid muttered, confirming Evelinde's own thoughts on the matter. "Shall I help you with your gown?"
Evelinde opened her mouth to refuse the offer, but then hesitated. It wasn't just her leg stiffening up as time passed. She had noticed her arm was beginning to ache as she'd packed, and suspected between that and her bruised ribs, undressing would not be the easy task it normally was.
"Aye. Thank you," she murmured.
Mildrede nodded and set to work, removing the gown quickly. She pronounced it beyond repair and tossed it in a corner, then helped remove Evelinde's chemise, tsking with concern as the bruises she bore were revealed.
"You cannot ride like this, my lady," Mildrede said with a frown as she urged her into the tub. "You will be in horrible pain."
"I hope the bath will help," Evelinde said quietly, wincing as the hot water seemed to scorch her skin. She was panting from the heat by the time she lowered herself fully into the tub, but it soon became more bearable, and it did start to ease her aches and pains almost right away.
"Can you not ask him to remain a day or two to allow you to heal? If he is as kind as you claim, surely he would allow it?"
Evelinde bit her lip, but then shook her head. "He has already seen them and yet desires to leave at once. He must have his reasons. Besides, what is a little pain beside the pleasure of escaping Edda?" she asked dryly.
Mildrede smiled reluctantly at the words and sighed. "I shall put a little tonic in your mead for you to drink. Twill make it more bearable."
"Thank you. I would appreciate that," Evelinde admitted.
Mildrede nodded and turned away. "I shall bring the mead and tonic back when I return from speaking to Mac. You just relax and soak."
Evelinde nodded silently, her eyes closing as she allowed the water to work its magic.
She must have fallen asleep in the hot water, for the next thing Evelinde knew, Mildrede was back, three maids on her heels and the water she reclined in was now tepid.
"Father Saunders is here, and your betrothed wants you below for the wedding at once," her maid squawked in a panic. She tossed her bag of medicinals on the chest by the bed, then hurried to the tub, where Evelinde was forcing herself to sit up. "Come. We have to wash your hair and get you dressed."
"How long have I been soaking?" Evelinde asked blearily as she noted her fingers and toes were wrinkled from the water.
Mildrede took a moment to bark at the other three maids to get packing, then answered, "Quite a while. It took me longer than I intended to convince Mac all was well, then Edda demanded I do first one thing and another for her."
The maid shook her head with disgust as she picked up a pail and splashed it over Evelinde's head to dampen her hair. "I will not be sorry to see the back of that woman."
Evelinde murmured an agreement and closed her eyes as Mildrede began to wash her hair with scented soap. She heard the door open again and blinked her eyes open, risking getting the soap in her eyes, to see a maid hurry in, a mug in hand.
"I brought the mead, Mildrede," the woman said, hurrying toward them.
"Put a little of my tonic in it, Alice," Mildrede ordered. She nodded toward the chest by the bed. " 'Tis in my medicinal bag on the chest. A smaller leather pouch with an x scratched into it."
The maid did as instructed, and Evelinde closed her eyes again as Mildrede grabbed up a pail to rinse her hair.
"I am sure I will be fine without the tonic, Mildrede," she said once the maid finished pouring out the first pail of water.
"The tonic will help. 'Tis better to be safe than sorry," she assured her, pouring another pail over her head.
Evelinde didn't bother to protest further. She supposed it couldn't hurt.
"There. Up you come. We have to dry your hair and dress you." Mildrede wrapped a linen around her when Evelinde stood, then held her hand to brace her as she stepped out of the tub. She urged her to a chair by the fire.
"Alice, where is the—Oh good," Mildrede muttered as the maid rushed over with the doctored mead. Handing it to Evelinde, she said, "Sit there and drink your tonic while I figure out what you should wear."
Evelinde accepted the mug with a smile of thanks for Alice, then lifted it to her nose and sniffed. That was enough to tell her this was going to be one of those tonics that caused more pain going down than it eased. She considered refusing to drink it, but rather than argue with Mildrede, she plugged her nose and tipped the mug to her lips. No amount of nose holding could cover the foul taste of this brew, however, and Evelinde nearly gagged on the pungent liquid the moment it hit her tongue.
"Gawd, Mildrede, 'tis horrible stuff," she complained with a shudder as she lowered the mug.
Mildrede turned from the gowns she was sorting through to shake her head. " 'Tis not. You should barely be able to taste it."
It was what the woman always said to get her to drink her medicine, and Evelinde gave her usual disbelieving snort, then plugged her nose and downed the rest of it.
"Do I have to eat the dregs?" she asked reluctantly when she recovered from downing the last of it and found the bottom of the mug full of small bits of crushed leaves and twigs.
"What?" Mildrede was suddenly at her side, snatching the mug from her. She peered at the contents, and then cursed and whirled to Alice. "What did you put in here, girl!"
Evelinde felt trepidation rise up along her spine at the panic in the woman's voice.
"I—the one you said to. With the x," the hapless Alice gasped, following Mildrede when she rushed to snatch up her medicinal bag and dump its contents on the bed.
"Which one did you use?" she asked.
"That one." The girl picked up a small pouch.
"Nay!" Mildrede gasped in horror.
"Is it wrong? You said the one with the x on it," Alice cried with distress.
"That is not an x, 'tis a cross," Mildrede snapped. She glanced down into the mug with a frown, and asked, "How much did you put in?"
"I—You said just a little," Alice answered evasively.
"Aye, I did, but this pouch was full and is now half-empty."
"Well, it tipped a bit as I was pouring it in," the girl said apologetically.
"Dear God," Mildrede breathed.
"What is it, Mildrede?" Evelinde asked, alarmed when her voice came out terribly slurred. She tried to gather the linen around herself to stand and cross the room, but found her hands incapable of holding the cloth. The material simply slipped through her fingers like sand. "What—?"
" 'Tis all right," the maid said reassuringly as she headed back toward her, though the worry in her voice detracted somewhat from the words. " 'Twill not kill you. Twill just—" Mildrede broke off and rushed forward to catch her as Evelinde began to slide out of the seat.